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Nothing Is More Important Than Family Within Organizational Culture For IceDogs GM Joey Burke

Joey Burke | General Manager | Niagara IceDogs

I consider myself extremely lucky to be able to work with my family and through this we have created the environment that our whole organization is one big family, including every player and staff member and we are a much stronger unit because of it.

Joey Burke

General Manager

Niagara IceDogs

× The interview with Joey Burke was conducted via a typed conversation. Editing changes were made to make it easier to read while maintaining the voice of the interview.

Tell us about your role as the General Manager of the Niagara IceDogs.

The best way I can describe my role would be that as General Manager I have to wear many hats. On the most basic level I am responsible for the scouting, recruiting, drafting, signing and trading of all players.

Basically, I am responsible for building the hockey team roster, however, there is much more involved behind the scenes than people may realize.

There is a lot of working and dealing with player agents (in terms of contract negotiations, any issues that arise within player personnel or families), other GMs (in terms of gauging interest in various trade options etc), and the league itself (in terms of eligibility, league requirements, extensive paperwork, etc).

A huge part of my role is to ensure a professional environment for players and staff alike and making sure we have a cohesive unit and are one big team/family.

My number one priority is player development and experience while in Niagara, and I pride myself on building an organization that players are excited to be a part of.

It is an extremely hectic, high-stress job with a lot of pressure decisions, and long cold nights on the road however it is extremely rewarding and there is certainly nothing I would rather be doing. 

What does a typical day look like for you during the season? What does a typical day look like during the offseason?

Every day is different; there are certainly windows during the season for a GM that are much more hectic and busy than a traditional week.

A few examples being trade deadline week, training camp week, draft day, various cut down/transfer deadlines etc. Preparing for these big moments every season requires 24 hours attention as 9-5 really isn’t applicable to the hockey world and you are making decisions that will impact your organization for years to come.

While there really isn’t a typical day for me during the season, the majority of weekdays are spent at the rink on my phone with agents, the league, other GMs, etc, on the computer working through any issues that may arise as well as always working to improve our club.

Being an OHL GM means you have to run different staffs and make sure everyone is on the same page in working toward a common goal. Leading up to the draft and training camp I will work daily with our coaching and scouting staff on what we are looking for, what we feel is a good fit for our culture etc.

The main thing I always say is that on any given day you need to be prepared for anything as any and everything can be thrown at you and it usually is.

In the hockey world, nothing is ever easy and you need to be willing to put in the extra effort and be creative in reaching your goals as an organization.

Throughout the season I spend countless hours travelling and scouting not only the OHL, but largely minor hockey as well. There is always something to do and always a way to improve and that is something I am constantly striving to achieve.

In terms of the off season I am always trying to improve our team for the upcoming season, preparing for the import draft which takes place every June is a huge part of my summer and once that concludes everything really shifts to signing any draft picks we feel are ready to make our team, and prepare everything for Training Camp and the season ahead.

It’s funny throughout the season there is very little if any off days so it is always nice to be able to relax a little bit once the season concludes, however I can never take too much time as part of season preparation includes applying and receiving Visa approval for foreign players and a number of other things that if not done in a timely fashion, can leave you behind when the season starts. 

You have been the General Manager since 2017, after starting as the Goaltending Scout in 2007-08, then working your way up from there to your current role. What did your journey to position of GM look like for you and what’s the main thing you have learned from it?

I started with Niagara as an intern ahead of the team’s inaugural season in 2007. My first role was to try and build local sponsorship support by handing out packages to local businesses.

During the 2007-2008 season I began as goalie scout and showed promise in that role right away, and was able to expand that role into a broader scouting position. Following 3 years of success in scouting I took over the role of Assistant General Manager in 2010 and held that title for 6 seasons winning many league banners during that span.

My time as assistant GM is really where I took the largest strides in terms of being properly prepared to take over as an OHL General Manager, over this time I studied the league very closely and what it takes to succeed.

The biggest thing I have learned and my biggest piece of advice for an aspiring GM is to always trust your gut, at the end of the day the GM will be held accountable for player success or failure, and you need to believe in what you are doing.

Prior to the 2016-17 season, I took over as Director of Player Personnel however this was really my first year as GM as we did not have a GM during this time, and I performed all responsibilities of a GM.

Ahead of the 2017-18 season I officially took over as General Manager and since then we have set multiple team records, won division championships and have established ourselves as a top destination in the OHL. Culminating in this past season where we were able to execute some of the biggest trades in league history that has set ourselves up for a great deal of future success.

The biggest lesson I have learned along the way is to be willing to work, the harder you work, the more you are willing to do the more people will take notice and the further you will go.

If you are able to, do not be afraid to intern, our current Assistant GM started as an office intern 4 years ago and has worked his way up, it is a great way to get your foot in the door and at the very least make some connections. 

There is no question that your family has played a big role in your sport background and work with the IceDogs. Your father Bill purchased the team in 2007 owning the team together with your mother, Denise, and your older brother was an OHL player for the Barrie Colts. What special impact has each member of your family had on you during your journey with Niagara?

The impact has been beyond measure, my entire family are really not only my mentors, but my greatest influence and who I aspire to emulate more than anyone else in, or out, of the hockey world.

I continue to learn from them each every day, my mother has been the only female executive in the OHL for years and not only has she received the leagues very prestigious Executive of the Year award, she is the smartest person I know and a constant source of inspiration.

My father had a clear vision years ago that junior hockey would succeed in the Niagara region and my parents really put everything on the line to make it viable, and make it work in Niagara and it is because of them that our community and region have completely embraced us as their own.

There is no one who has taught me more about running a business and how to effectively manage than my father and I continue to learn from him every day.

My brother really is the smartest hockey mind I have ever met and I am lucky to be able to work with him every day. We think very similarly in terms of what our direction is and what we want to achieve as a team so we are able to effectively bounce ideas off each other with ease.

I consider myself extremelylucky to be able to work with my family and through this we have created the environment that our whole organization is one big family, including every player and staff member and we are a much stronger unit because of it. 

What does it mean to be linked closely together with your family while developing as a sport professional in the OHL?

There will always be additional challenges and neigh sayers for sure but at the end of the day, results and work ethic speak louder than words do and through consistent success, Billy and I have certainly done everything we can to silence any nepotism critics.

I am extremely aware of the path I have taken to get to where I am an I do not take a grain of it for granted, but with that said there is a big difference between having something handed to you, and playing the hand you were dealt. Had I not showed prowess and success in my lower roles, I would not have advanced up in the organization as that is not fair to anyone, and helps no one.

There is no doubt I would not be where I am without my family and I make it my life’s ambition to repay that and to continue to strive to be the best GM I can be and bring a Memorial Cup to Niagara, a goal I believe we are closing in on.

What advice would you give to young sport professionals who aspire to be the GM of a sports franchise?

  • Be eager, attitude goes a long way and a willingness to work does not go unnoticed.
  • Work hard; be willing to take on challenges that take you out or your comfort zone.
  • Be relentless; prove you are willing to go the extra mile, which will go a long way.
  • If you can, intern, get your foot in the door any way you can.

Recall the first few days that you began employment at various sport organizations. What are three feelings one should prepare for when starting a role in the front office of a sport organization? How would you describe them and how to overcome them?

Prepare to be overwhelmed, when I first came on full time as assistant gm I was shocked at the vastness of what is required to run a successful team.

I was blown away at the hectic schedule, the travel involved, the pressure involved and the feeling of having more than you can handle being thrown at you right away, it really is trial by fire so to speak and my advice is to take a deep breath, and handle one thing at a time.

Trust your gut that what you are doing is right. Follow the chain of command as no one starts at the top, be willing to learn and ask questions. While it is an intimidating world at first, it gets easier and I promise you if you want it bad enough, you will get there.  

Matias Bueno Matias's Final Thoughts

Joey has had an incredible journey to become an OHL General Manager from his early days as a goalie scout over a decade ago. Being in that position is no easy task but he has found a way to create a strong culture within the organization that has compounded on top of the work his father did before him. The concept of family in a sports team may sound cliche, but it is essential for success in all levels of sport. No amount of pure talent can carry a team alone. It was a pleasure to get more behind the scenes knowledge of what it takes to operate an OHL team and how the day to day tasks of operations have a compounding effect on the club in the long term. For anyone looking to become a General Manager of a sports team, this article is very useful for understanding what it takes to have success at the top. 

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